Penguin New Writing 37: The embrace of the weird

p1010877.jpgSo many famous writers in this issue from 1949! Laurie Lee, Frank O’Connor, Anna Kavan, Patrick Leigh-Fermor and Jacquetta Hawkes! Had John Lehmann’s ship come in?

Frank O’Connor’s ‘The Landlady’ is one of the most readable stories Lehmann published in Penguin New Writing, and it’s not gloomy, or cruel to women, or about tight-lipped privilege. I do like O’Connor’s genial realism. It’s not simplistic, but it feels grounded in human experience, albeit undateable. His characters feel real and their preoccupations feel normal, unlike the peculiar sexual obsessives in William Sansom’s stories, for example. In this one, three Irishmen wonder about marrying the landlady of the best boarding-house in the town in order to get the best breakfast that she also serves.

P1010878Anna Kavan’s story ‘The red dogs’ is indisputably science fiction, so I wonder what Lehmann was on during the weeks of selection for this issue: he never chooses science fiction normally, though he must have had some submissions since the late 1930s. Kavan’s story feels a little Lovecraftian in the narrator’s altering awareness of her surroundings, and the oddly changing landscape, as she leaves the observatory to walk down the hill in the dark, assuming that she’s missed the last bus. Red dogs are rumoured in the vicinity (but never explained), and the weather has been behaving oddly. ‘You never know where you are with clouds. They sometimes lead people on.’ There’s a screaming woman with streaming long hair running along the ridge on a hill that was surely not there before, and from far away she sees the dogs emerging. I would far rather read this kind of story than endless demobbed soldier narratives by men with a grudge against women.

P1010879Once again Lehmann publishes excellent photographs of male artists and writers.

P1010880I liked these paintings by John Minton. But (am I getting boring?) not one woman’s portrait has appeared yet, and I don’t think much art by women has been shown either.

Dorothy Baker’s translation of a story by Jules Supervielle, ‘A Child of the High Seas’ is like Kavan’s story, fantastika. A twelve-year old girl wanders in clogs among the streets in a drowned village in the middle of the sea, and is utterly alone. Food appears for her to eat, she lights fires in some of the village fireplaces, she has boxes of letters and books to read, but she can’t make a sound, she’s voiceless. No sailor passing will ever hear her, and she can never make anyone see her. The terrible unhappiness of this child is explained (inasmuch as fantastika can ever be properly explained) in the last lines which I shan’t reveal because they are heartbreakingly sad. A superb story.

Sid Chaplin’s story ‘Bread’ takes us back to men’s business, in this case, mining. Joe and Danny are deep in the mine, when the roof comes in, and they’re trapped with little water and less food. Joe dies, but Danny doesn’t. When he’s well again, he goes to chapel with his wife, but the sight of the sacrament of the body of Christ, the bread of forgiveness, is too much to bear, and the secret he’s been keeping since he was rescued is a torment. It’s taut, compact and perfectly told.

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Issue 38

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